Posts Tagged ‘Robert Baberske’


Feminism, as a common topic of conversation, didn’t take off in the United States until the late sixties, so it may come as a surprise to some that DEFA tackled the subject in 1952, with the film, Destinies of Women (Frauenschicksale). Communists were early adopters of the principle that everyone should have the same rights, be they male or female, black, white, or brown. International Women’s Day, after all, came from the socialist movement. Throughout its history, DEFA made a point of making films that showed women in positions of power (e.g., Her Third, In the Dust of the Stars, Trace of Stones, The Dove on the Roof). Of course, as with every other major country at the time, all the top officials were still white males, but at least the topic was neither suppressed or intentionally subverted the way it was in America in the early fifties. Hollywood films from this period are egregiously offensive in their sexism. Women were ditzy, too emotional, and couldn’t drive, the public was told. It is better for everyone if men take over the reins again and let the women stay home and make the babies.

As is always the case, the primary reasons for this were economic. During the war, women had taken over many of the factory jobs, but now the men were home again and they wanted those jobs back. A lot of women discovered that they liked working better than housekeeping and they weren’t crazy about this turn of events. Instead of supporting this new attitude and working with it (as the Soviets did), the media used appalling tactics to get women out of those positions and back into the kitchen. Women, Americans were told, were ditzy, emotional, and terrible drivers. They were so much better at raising children, isn’t that what they should be doing? This message was reinforced again and again in films and television. Jokes about the impracticality of women became the common currency for comedians on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, broadcast to millions every Sunday night. The tactic was effective. By the mid-fifties, the working woman was seen as a slightly pathetic figure, either incapable of finding a husband to take care of them, or, in hushed tones, one of the them. [As a child growing up in the fifties, I always wondered what this meant. Was there some secret club I didn’t know about? It sounded interesting; it sounded fun.]

Of course, economic factors were at work in the Soviet sector as well, but the USSR fared far worse during the war than the United States ever did, and they needed Germany to get back on its feet as soon as possible and the fact that half the workers were women had no bearing on things. If anything, this helped boost the workforce, which had been decimated by the war.

Destinies of Women takes place in Berlin, a city divided, but without the wall to keep people on one side or the other. The action centers around a man called “Conny,” a black marketeer and playboy who likes to seduce women and then abandon them. He’s done this with dozens of women, but the story centers around four in particular. Barbara Berg is an East German law student who is about to start a promising career as a judge. After Conny breaks up with her, she walks dazedly into traffic and is nearly killed. Anni Neumann lives in West Berlin and is aspiring to be a fashion designer. After a fling with Conny leaves her pregnant, she loses her job and finds the attitudes in West Germany intensely unfriendly to an unmarried woman in need of work. Eventually, she crosses over into East Berlin, where the state-run companies not only don’t judge her for being a single mother, but also offer daycare for the kids at the factories—a relatively recent innovation in the west. Renate Ludwig is a frivolous young woman who lives in East Berlin but is enamored by the glitz and glitter of the western materialism. When Conny dumps her, she is convinced that it’s because she didn’t have that beautiful blue dress in the window a West Berlin department store. Her desire for the dress leads to the most disastrous consequences of all. The fourth woman (girl really) is Ursel, a member of the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend—East Germany’s communist youth group), and an ardent communist. Ursel’s parents died during the war, and she is at odds with her grandparents, who don’t understand her devotion to the cause. As one might imagine, Conny’s attempts to charm her with his materialism and flattery fare far worse with Ursel than it did with the others.

Tying all these story together is Hertha Scholz, who interacts with all four women in different ways. Frau Scholz is a longtime communist, who spent most of the war in a concentration camp for her beliefs. She is the moral center of the film, dispensing good advice and making the hard decisions when necessary.  In some respects, this movie resembles the Rubble Films of the previous decade. Several of the characters here are deeply affected by the events of WWII and are only starting to get their lives back together. It is Frau Scholz who is both the most affected by the ravages of war, and the best at rising above it.

As with the films coming out of Hollywood at this time, this movie wears its politics on its sleeve. The west is shown as an uncaring environment devoted to profit and material pleasure. The people in power in West Germany (who are, for purposes of this film also mostly women) are shown to be callous and uncaring. Nightlife in the west is shown as either desperate or decadent. A motif that runs through the film is dancing. When Conny takes Anni to a dance in the west, we notice that many of the couple dancing together are women, while other women sit alone at tables. Where are the men? Unemployed, perhaps, and unable to afford the dance? Later, when Conny goes with Renate to a dance in the east, the loneliness of the early scene is missing. Everyone is paired off and happy. The capper comes when Conny woos the Baroness Isa von Traudel. Conny presumably sees the Baroness as a meal ticket, unaware that she is as broke as he is. The two go out dancing at what looks like a modern a discotheque. In this scene, western decadence is on full display. Aging women dance with stoned young hipsters to hyperkinetic jazz. Everyone is overdressed and desperately trying to have fun. Punctuating the scene are zoom shots of the framed illustrations of gorillas dressed as capitalist fat cats that lines the walls of the disco. “Yeah!” a man screams every time one of these drawings is shown. The end result looks like Dante’s Second Circle of Hell filtered through Saturday Night Fever.

In 1952, when the film was made, West Germany had yet to recover from the war. The Allied forces—still in control at that point—were in no hurry to see Germany get back on its feet after what happened during the Weimar days. Some western politicos, most notably Henry Morgenthau Jr., recommended dismantling all manufacturing in Germany and force the country to return to a pre-industrial state. While one could argue that this basic sentiment was no less true for the Soviets, they, at least, got the factories back up and running much faster than West Germany. In 1952, the idea of people crossing to the east to find work was far more likely. One need only look at the number of West Germans working at DEFA during its early years to see this. It was only after East Germany, under the communists, pulled out ahead of the western sectors in development that the allies finally abandoned their plans to keep Germany in the Middle Ages, quietly ignoring the Nazi credentials of some businessmen to help in this effort. Being a Nazi was bad, but, as far as the United States was concerned, it was better than being a communist.

To any fan of East German films, the thing that is most striking about Destinies of Women is how little like a DEFA film it looks. If anything, it resembles the classic styles of UFA and Hollywood. This isn’t that uncommon in the early days of DEFA. Filmmakers such as Konrad Wolf, Frank Beyer, and Wolfgang Staudte had yet to reshape and redefine what filmmaking meant in East Germany. As previously mentioned, several of the early films were made by West Germans, whose style didn’t vary that greatly from the overblown heroics and romanticism of the Third Reich (see any Heimatfilm for an example). Director Slatan Dudow wasn’t one of these people, but his style was almost certainly shaped by his early years at UFA. He started making films in the 1930s, but Hitler’s rise to power put an end to this. Dudow’s last pre-war film—Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), which was co-written by Bertolt Brecht, was banned by the Nazis for its communist ideology. Dudow was arrested by the Nazis for being a communist. Born in Bulgaria, he was slated for deportation when he fled first to France and later to Switzerland, where he continued to work in theater. After the war, he returned to the Eastern Sector of Germany and was one of the co-founders of DEFA. Ironically, his first effort at filmmaking—a screen adaptation of his play, Der Weltuntergang (The Apocalypse), was rejected for being too formalist. His first film for DEFA was Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread), which follows the fate of a family after WWII as they eventually come to realize the advantages of socialism. Dudow continued making films in East Germany until 1963, when he was killed in a car accident. At the time, he was making a film titled Christine that, like Destinies of Women, tackled the issue of feminism in the GDR, but with a far less idealistic stance. An attempt was made to finish the film from the existing footage, but by all accounts, the results were unsatisfactory and it was screened only once.

Carnival ride

Destinies of Women was only the second feature films that DEFA made in color and the first by master cinematographer Robert Baberske. Baberske pulled out all the stops for this film. The color is spectacularly vibrant and uses a palette that the world hasn’t seen since the early fifties. The only film that comes close to this in its use of color is the 1945 Hollywood classic Leave Her to Heaven, for which cinematographer Leon Shamroy won an oscar. Baberske is clearly enjoying this new technology, and several scenes have the rhythmic fascination with movement that characterized his work on the 1927 visual tone poem, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek). In one scene in particular, the camera follows three women as they explore the rides at a carnival. Wherever they go, the camera follows, spinning on a Tilt-a-Whirl or soaring aloft on a swing ride. It is exhilarating footage.

The help write the screenplay, Dudow enlisted two young writers of considerable talent, Gerhard Bengsch and Ursula Rumin. Gerhard Bengsch went on to have a long and fruitful career at DEFA. Using pseudonyms, he also managed to get teleplays produced by ARD in West Germany shortly before reunification. This, no doubt, helped him continue his career after the Wende. Bengsch continued working in television until 1993, retiring from writing for the small screen at that point to concentrate on his novels and short stories. He died in 2004 and is buried in Kleinmachow.

Ursula Rumin’s life took a very different path from those of her co-writers. Rumin lived in the western sector of Berlin and had very little interest in politics. Shortly after Destinies of Women was made, Ms. Rumin was asked to come to DEFA to sign a contract for further work, but instead of taking her to the film studio, the limousine that picked her up took her to the Soviet secret service headquarters where she was accused of espionage and collaboration with the enemy (a charge she has always denied). She was sentenced to 15 years hard labor at Vorkuta, the northernmost outpost of the infamous Siberian Gulags. She was released in 1954 as part of an amnesty, and moved to Cologne, where she worked for many years for Deutsche Welle. She wrote about her experiences at Vorkuta in her book, Im Frauen-GULag am Eismeer (In the women’s Gulag on the Arctic Ocean).

No discussion of Destinies of Women would be complete without mentioning the spectacular costumes designed by Vera Mügge. The fashion trends of the early fifties are on full display here in every form, from the practical business suits of Barbara Berg, to the outrageous, costume-like outfits worn by the West German decadents, to Renate Ludwig’s simple day dress. Ms. Mügge takes full advantage of the film’s Agfacolor with a pallet of colors that firmly pins this film to its time. Unlike many costume designers in Germany at that point, Ms. Mügge was no stranger to color film costume design. She also worked in wardrobe on the very first Agfacolor film ever made, Frauen sind doch bessere Diplomaten (Women are Better Diplomats). Undoubtedly she learned a thing or two about the process during that problem plagued production, which often suffered from color mismatching due to the natural shifts in light that occur throughout the day. She got her start as a costume designer during the Third Reich, working on, among other things, the infamously anti-Semitic film, The Rothschilds. After the war, she immediately started working at DEFA, producing costumes for the classics Council of the Gods, and Das verurteilte Dorf (The Condemned Village); but it is her work on Opernfilme (opera films) and Märchenfilme during this period for which she is best remembered. In 1958 she moved to the west, where she continued working for many years, primarily for CCC-Films. She retired in 1974.

Although the film was an attempt to show a more feminist perspective, it was roundly criticized by party officials and women’s worker organizations for its depictions of women. Nonetheless, the film was popular with audiences and is now recognized for its attempts to address the issue of women’s rights at a time when few people (Simone de Beauvoir notwithstanding) were willing to discuss the subject at all.

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Der Untertan

The Kaiser’s Lackey is based on a book by Heinrich Mann. The actual title, Der Untertan, doesn’t translate well into English. As a consequence, it has been rendered variously as The Patrioteer, The Loyal Subject, The Man of Straw, and The Underdog. IMDB calls it The Man of Straw, which does have a poetic quality to it, but the film is currently available from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst as The Kaiser’s Lackey, which is closer to the mark. [Note: For anyone curious about my website’s title formatting style, see “About the Titles” on the About page.]

As the titles Der Untertan and The Kaiser’s Lackey suggest, the film is the story of a man who subjugates himself to the whims of his superiors. The story takes place during the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich), which lasted from 1871 to 1918. Most of the story revolves around, 1888, the so-called “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr), when the country went through three rulers in quick succession, ending up with Wilhelm II, the man responsible for leading Germany into World War I. The film is the story of a man named Diederich Heßling—the Untertan of the title. With his blond twist of hair and chubby countenance, Heßling looks a bit like Tintin gone to pot. He is pompous and chauvinistic, and as full of himself as a man can be. The story starts with his birth and follows him to his crowning achievement: the installation of a gigantic bronze statue of the Kaiser in his town square.

What none of the various titles adequately reveal is the fact that, while Heßling willingly subjects his very soul to the Kaiser, he expects those beneath him to similarly devote themselves to him and his business. Heßling’s business is making toilet paper, and his crowning achievement is the production of toilet paper with nationalistic slogans printed on each sheet. As you’ve probably guessed by now, The Kaiser’s Lackey is a political comedy, and a mordant one at that.

The film was directed by Wolfgang Staudte, the premiere director during the early days of DEFA. Staudte got his start as an actor in the late twenties. He was, among other things, one of the students in The Blue Angel. At the beginning of his career, he worked primarily on stage, but because of his penchant for appearing in avant-garde plays, he found himself on the wrong side of the Nazis and was banned from the theater. He continued to work in radio and film, and often played in smaller roles, including one in the notoriously anti-Semitic, Jud Süß. During the thirties, he began directing short films and made his feature film debut in 1943 with Akrobat Schööön! (Acrobat Oooooh!). His second film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man Whose Name was Stolen), was immediately banned by the Goebbels and Staudte’s career as a director was brought to a premature halt. He later remade the film for DEFA under the title Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Strange Adventures of Fridolin B.).

Staudte was responsible for some of the best films to come out of East Germany during its early years. He directed the first DEFA film, The Murderers are Among Us, and other early classics including, Rotation and The Story of Little Mook. In 1955, a combination of a quarrel with Bertolt Brecht during the filming of Mother Courage (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder)* and the restrictions imposed on him by DEFA were too much for him to take and he headed west; first to Holland, directing the popular kid’s film Ciske the Rat and its sequel, then later to West Germany, where he made several films, including the 1962 version of his former collaborator Bertolt Brecht ’s The Three Penny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). From 1970 on, he worked primarily in television, directing episodes for the popular TV shows, Tatort and Der Kommisar, among others. He died in 1984 while working on Der eiserne Weg (The Iron Way), a five-part miniseries for ZDF television in West Germany.

The author of Der Untertan, Heinrich Mann, was Thomas Mann’s older brother. Mann was a successful writer prior to World War I, and had made a name for himself with his book Professor Unrat, which was later turned into the movie, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), starring Marlene Dietrich in her career-making role. Der Untertan was scheduled for release in 1914, but the war put its publication on hold until 1918. Still stinging from World War I, the German public took to Mann’s caustic examination of how nationalism can lead men down dangerous and idiotic paths. The book was huge hit, but, as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t think much of it. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, Heinrich Mann was one of the first 33 people that the Nazis declared personae non gratae (alongside author Lion Feuchtwanger and future President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck). Mann fled the country, eventually ending up in Santa Monica, California, where he and Lion Feuchtwanger worked as script editors. By 1950, Mann was broke and alone, his wife having committed suicide a few years earlier. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting was gaining traction, and Mann was feeling very unwelcome in his new home. He was getting ready to leave the States and move to East Germany, where he had been elected as president of the German Academy of Arts, when he died.

The obnoxious lackey of the title is played by Werner Peters. Peters had worked in theater during the Third Reich, but his career as a movie actor didn’t begin until 1947, when he appeared in Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Yesterday and Tomorrow), the first post-war, western sector film made by a German film company (Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft). His next few films were made at DEFA though, including The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum), Die Buntkarierten (The Girls in Gingham), Rotation, and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat). After The Kaiser’s Lackey, he appeared in a few more East German films, including The Story of Little Mook, and the Ernst Thälmann movies, but, like directors Wolfgang Staudte and Falk Harnack, Peters decided to head west. He went on to appear in dozens of West German movies, as well as a few American ones, usually playing either a villain or a buffoon. He appeared in several of the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films that were so popular in West Germany during the 1960s. Other films he was in include: The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), 36 Hours, A Fine Madness, The Secret War of Harry Frigg, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He was also a well-respected voice actor. It was his voice that people heard for Orson Welles in the German version of The Third Man.

The cinematography is by Robert Baberske, and it is impressive. Distorted images are used to heighten the absurdity of situations: After Heßling’s duel, we see the faces of his comrades twisted comically through their beer steins as they celebrate with him. When he is confronted by a superior on the academy grounds, the perspective is exaggerated, with Heßling appearing greatly foreshortened, as if being addressed by God. At the start of the film the images of Heßling’s parents are blurred around the edges, suggesting the distant and unclear memories that helped make him the man he became. [Note: for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek.]

The music is by Horst Hans Sieber, who composed music for several shorts, propaganda films, and documentaries during the Third Reich. After WWII, he began composing music for feature films, starting with Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Happy Barge Crew), the first of the DEFA barge films by Hans Heinrich. He  wrote at least one play  (Ich heirate nur aus Liebe, 1950, published by Drei Masken Verlag), which suggests a theatrical background. That would make perfect sense given the highly theatrical nature of the music in this film. It is through the music that we first realize that we are dealing with a comedy. The film begins with nostalgic dance hall piano music, which suddenly switches to a lively fife and drum march, then a lullaby for harp and musical saw, ending with a full orchestra parade march. During the storm scene, when the statue of the Kaiser is being unveiled, the music swirls like the wind on the screen, as if several tunes are stirred up together. We hear the primary themes from the movie interspersed with the music of the Third Reich.

When the film was released in East Germany, it immediately generated negative comments in the western press. The film’s use of Nazi music, and its attacks on the upper-class and businessmen were not well received in West Germany. The film was banned outright and wouldn’t reach West German cinemas for another five-and-a-half years. Even then, the final scene was cut, along with the scene where a worker is shot for resisting a policeman. West Germany was much more sensitive to the subject of Nazis. Unlike East Germany, the Bundesrepublik quietly swept the Nazi trials under the rug and allowed some pretty heinous people to go back to work. People like Hans Globke, who served as the chief legal advisor in the Office for Jewish Affairs in the Ministry of Interior under Adolf Eichmann, but nonetheless was named by West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer as Director of the Federal Chancellory of West Germany; or Theodor Oberländer, a Nazi officer in charge of ethnic cleansing during WWII, and then—in a gesture of supreme irony—was named as Federal Minister for Displaced Persons, Refugees and Victims of War by Adenauer. The conservatives were in charge, and, like the United States, anyone whose philosophy leaned to the left was being marginalized. The Kaiser’s Lackey was too much for them to take. It would be years before people in the west would come to realize that they were looking at one of the greatest film to come out of either side of Germany during the 1950s.

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* Reportedly, this film version of Mother Courage was eventually released in a highly abbreviated version. The film starred Helene Weigel, Bertolt Brecht ’s second wife, and the woman most famously associated with the role of Mother Courage. It also features Simone Signoret in the role of Yvette Pottier, the camp prostitute. The film was assembled from what footage Staudte had shot and was released as one of four DEFA-made films distributed by the short-lived Pandora-Film Company in Stockholm. As of this writing the film appears to be lost.